Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Montero steals thunder from improved Vancouver Whitecaps defensive performance in win over Impact

The Vancouver Whitecaps snatched an important 3-1 victory over the Montreal Impact on Wednesday. In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps, we look at what paved the way towards that win, including a formation switch, some defensive growth and a throwback Fredy Montero performance. 

From the darkness of the bench, he emerged, allowing his team to grab all 3 points. 

Arguably the most talked about player of the year, mostly due to the fact that he hadn’t played much yet, Fredy Montero once again dominated the conversation on Wednesday, this time for the reasons he’d probably prefer, as he scored a huge brace in a vital 3-1 Vancouver Whitecaps win over the Montreal Impact. 

Mere days after the Whitecaps were played off of the park by the same Impact side, they bounced back nicely on Wednesday night, as they rode Montero’s hot return, some tighter defending and a catastrophic brain fart from Impact defender Rudy Camacho en route to picking up all 3 points. 

While the last part certainly factored into the result more than the Impact would’ve liked, especially considering that they looked a lot better with Camacho off of the pitch than on it, full credit to the ‘Caps for bouncing back and winning after a tough loss, knocking Montreal out of the Canadian Championship in the process. 

All of a sudden, with 2 wins in their last 3 games, the Whitecaps find themselves in a decent position heading into phase 2 of their MLS return, which is going to be held in the United States, as the Western Conference playoff race is still very wide open at the moment. 

With only 8 points separating first and last, with all but 3 teams having played 11 games, things are very tight heading into the second half of this unique 23 game slate, which has already been memorable for many reasons. 

It won’t be easy for the Whitecaps, who will depart on a 12 game US adventure that will certainly give them a test unlike anything they’ve seen before, but with the confidence of these recent victories, as well as their hopeful positioning in the MLS table, they’ll feel like they can make something of this road trip. 

Given that everyone will be participating in this phase 2 of play, giving head coach Marc Dos Santos a chance to keep moulding his full roster into a competent MLS team, this is a good chance for the ‘Caps to keep on showing growth, while still trying to compete in the process. 

As they’ve recently shown, while the growth part has been inconsistent, when they’re on their game, they can compete, so hopefully they can combine the two and find a way to consistently progress and compete in the 12 (and possibly more) games that await them. 

But before we look ahead to those games that await them now, we’ll look back at their most recent victory, as the ‘Caps showed some particularly encouraging signs in their 3-1 victory over the Impact. 

A triumphant return of the 4-2-3-1:

For those who’ve seen the ‘Caps engage in a formation carousel that has seen them try out over a half-dozen different formations this season, a return to the 4-2-3-1 was exciting, for a myriad of reasons. 

Obviously, there’s the fact that the ‘Caps best options seem to fit in that sort of set up, but there’s also the fact that the Whitecaps looked really good in preseason when using the 4-2-3-1, yet this was the first time since February that we saw them use it again. 

And given what we saw, you’d have to imagine that this isn’t the last time they use this formation, as it seemed to maximize most of what they had at their disposal. 

From looking much improved defensively, only allowing 1.23 Expected Goals (xG), after allowing 3.4 xG on Sunday, to looking a lot more controlled in midfield, and continuing their recent offensive growth (they scored 2+ goals for the third game in a row after going 4.5 games without scoring), they just looked a lot more balanced on Wednesday. 

Too often in recent games, they’d seem to plug one gap at the expense at the other, as in the games in which they’d be good defensively, they’d struggle to score, and vice versa. 

Instead, in this one, they seemed much more in control, and while the sending off in the 37th minute contributed to that, they were probably still the better side through the first 35, anyways, and they were clinical when they needed to. 

It’s a small sample size, so you don’t want to proclaim anything too egregious after a victory like this, but considering that they looked a lot like when they beat Minnesota 2-1 in preseason, the last game they used the 4-2-3-1 in, it feels safe to say that this may be their best formation. 

For whatever reason, they seem a lot more in control on both ends of the pitch in this setup, so even though this soccer is maybe a bit more low-event than you’d hope, that’s a trade-off you take, especially when we see some of the results the ‘Caps have gotten in other formations. 

Training like you play:

And while the 4-2-3-1 is low-event now, if they continue to train with it and get their players more comfortable, the scoring chances should start to flow. 

Considering how much offensive growth they’ve shown in these recent 3 games at home in the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-1-2, they’ve taken a good step in that department as of late, so there’s no reason to imagine them continuing to that going forward. 

Throw in the fact that the ‘Caps have actually been outperforming their xG, as their offensive talent is good enough to make Vancouver more dangerous than you’d expect a team like them to be, if they can start getting more chances, goals could start flowing by the bucketful soon. 

With the team continuing to put in strong shifts at training, at least according to Dos Santos, if they can keep finding that extra gear when preparing for games, there’s no reason to not see them continue to find better results on the pitch. 

“I [credit] us working together as a staff, and with the players on recognizing every day what needs to be better,” Dos Santos said after the game. “It’s a mix of everything. Then there was some players that have been answering very well in training. I know you guys, usually in a normal year, you guys come many times to training. And this year, you’re not able to because of COVID, but some of the guys have been just answering in a regular and consistent way in training. And that’s the answers we need to be confident to say, ‘This is the right mix this is the right build’ and analyzing.”

“You know my relationship with the players is not, ‘We do this or this was wrong. This was right.’ It’s a relation of, ‘I think this, what do you guys think, where do we have to be better.’ I think that in this area and there’s discussions that allow us to grow as a team because everybody does it together.”

The art of defending: 

But while the ‘Caps offensive growth has been noteworthy in recent games, their defence has been less than stellar as of late, as they allowed a combined 6 goals in their last 2 games before Wednesday, making it a big point of worry earlier this week. 

If they’re to have any chance in games, they need to do what they did on Wednesday, as aside from one rash mistake from Ranko Veselinovic, and a bit of confusion on a first-half corner, their defensive game was nearly sparkless. 

After allowing dangerous chance after dangerous chance the past 2 games, they nearly completely cut off the Impact on Wednesday, as they finally started to stop Montreal before they reached any dangerous areas. 

From closing down crosses, to applying constant pressure anytime the Impact tried to cut into the middle, the Whitecaps made sure to limit the amount of dangerous possession that Montreal had, a far cry from Sunday, for example, when it felt like every Montreal attack was a lethal one. 

And while the two mistakes easily could’ve cost them more, no defence is consistently perfect, so it’s not the end of the world. 

As long as they can limit those big mistakes to 1 or 2 a game, and make sure that teams are otherwise deprived of quality service in their final third, things will be alright, with Wednesday’s win being a prime example of that. 

Considering that they’ve now got 4 victories and 2 losses when they’ve conceded 2 goals or less, with their 2 losses only coming as part of that 400+ minute goalless blip, when they keep things tight at the back, they usually score enough to win. 

So look at the ‘Caps to keep working on their collective defensive game, as it was excellent on Wednesday, and they were justly rewarded for that. 

“Look, number 1 I think that when you talk about defending, you have to talk collectively, you have to talk about the movement of the wingers participating, how the wingers close down, how the back 4 slides and closes down,” Dos Santos said. “And I think today, and let’s remember this, we played a very young back 4, a very young back 4, so that’s encouraging also for the future of the club, and the way they were sliding, the way they were aggressive coming out.”

“I (also) think Janio (Bikel), for a player that’s been out for so long, and being (on the pitch) for only 45 minutes, he brought bite there, he brought energy there, he’s still going to grow a lot there, but he brought a lot of things, and at the end of the day, we spoke a lot about that. If that part’s not better, we can’t be a team that needs 3 goals to win a game, that’s wrong, because that puts a lot of pressure on the attackers. We need to be a team that sometimes wins the game 1-0, and for that, you have to have a lot of cohesion defensively, so I think that part I was pleased, but I think it was a part that we addressed a lot.”

And it’s that idea of the defence being a collective that will be so important to hone in on. 

It wasn’t just Derek Cornelius and Ranko Veselinovic, the two centre backs, making plays, but also full backs Cristian Gutierrez and Jake Nerwinski, who were excellent, closing down wingers, with the midfielders, Russell Teibert, Janio Bikel and later Michael Baldisimo, doing well in limiting the Impact’s space at the top of the box. 

You throw in the 2 wingers, Theo Bair and Cristian Dajome, and the #10, David Milinkovic, tracking back and giving extra bodies defensively, and it was just an overall good defensive team performance from Vancouver. 

If they can build off of that, you have to feel a lot better about their chances going forward than you would’ve in the last 2 games. 

With Thomas Hasal looking a lot sharper in goal than he did on Sunday, and the impending return of Maxime Crepeau, they’ve got good pieces in net, as well, giving hope that this ‘Caps team can once again be among the stingiest in MLS, as was the case 5 years ago. 

Thomas Hasal looks on during the ‘Caps loss to the Impact on Sunday (Keveren Guillou)

Oh, Fredy: 

Ever since returning to the ‘Caps last season, Fredy Montero has been an enigma for Vancouver, as he’s faced all sorts of challenges that he didn’t really face in his first go-around in the White and Blue. 

From struggling with injuries at the start of last year, to not getting the service he needed to be a consistent striker, last year was tough for a bunch of reasons. 

This year, things haven’t been much better, either, as he was relegated to the bench with the arrival of striker Lucas Cavallini, the club’s record-signing. 

You throw in the pandemic, and that Montero opted out in playing at MLS is Back, as well as the fact that he was left at home for ‘technical’ reasons during the first 3 away games in phase 1 of MLS play for the ‘Caps, and it’s just been a tough 2020 for the Colombian striker. 

But to give credit to him, he’s battled through that, and with his season essentially ‘restarting’ with the return of the ‘Caps to Vancouver, he’s thrown himself into training with a new mindset, as he looked to show Dos Santos that he could still contribute for Vancouver. 

Thanks to that, he worked his way back into the matchday squad, and while his first start of the year on Wednesday was more circumstantial, as Cavallini was serving a one-game ban for a red card he picked up on Sunday, he made the most of it with his two well-taken goals. 

There’s no doubt that at 33 years of age he’s slowing down, and that he doesn’t offer the same physical abilities that some of the other ‘Caps strikers offer, but boy can he still finish, and he showed that on Wednesday. 

If he can keep up whatever he’s been doing in training as of late, there’s no doubt that he can contribute to this team, be it as a starter or off of the bench, with his play against the Impact being a prime example of that. 

As Dos Santos said in a very long-winded answer in his press conference Wednesday, it’s been a long journey for Montero, but he’s seemed to find his groove as of late, which for a young ‘Caps team lacking experience, has been a good boost for them to get. 

“Number one, Fredy. You know, he was even [upset] he was coming out,” Dos Santos said. “He was disappointed about coming out because he told me, ‘Man I wanted to go all the way’ because he was excited to play. Maybe he hasn’t been playing for a year in an official game. But let’s do the chronological situation here. So, number one, when there’s a lockdown and COVID and everything, even if you want to play, Fredy didn’t play, nobody played. When there was a lockdown, there was a lockdown. Then, for personal reasons, Fredy didn’t go to MLS is Back. So there’s another stop there.”

“And then, when he comes, when we came back to training, it was so disjointed because it’s easy to give opinions and think we should have done this and that, but trust me guys, it was incredibly disjointed started March 10, March 11, when we went home then MLS is Back. Many didn’t go and then when we got back, we felt he wasn’t ready for the first trip. Maybe we were wrong. Maybe he had physically enough but we didn’t see that. And maybe we were wrong. But then, every time in training.”

Dos Santos continued: “I was seeing things in Fredy that ‘Man, he wants to contribute. He wants to help, he wants to show. He wants to change things. And then, when we got him back. He came in the last game very well. And I told them in front of the group, ‘Tomorrow, you’re starting, because you deserve to start, and you’ve done everything right to start.’ He came in and he had a fantastic game, he deserved even the hat trick (tonight). He impacted the game with the ball, he impacted the game in possession, he impacted the game in the chances created and the runs in the box and he has to be proud of that and it’s well done for him. There were portions in the game today that we lacked maturity.”

“And you see it in Montreal, you know, you see that with (Victor) Wanyama, and even Bojan when he came in or even (Saphir) Taider. They have these older guys that know how to deal in some situations, and by the way, just before I go on with Fredy. Fredy, it was very clear what we wanted. We felt that in the movements, where he comes in the pocket, and he drags a player like (Luis) Binks. There’s a lot of runs that could have been made in behind by Theo (Bair), (Cristian) Dajome, David (Milinkovic). We wanted to play him as a kind of a false number nine, that gets away from the centre backs to create space for others. And at the same time, when he arrived late, he arrived in good spots within wanting to be with the centre backs and just stay there so I think that Fredy did everything right today, everything right and we have to give credit to his game on the ball. He was solid in the box, he was solid. And he definitely allowed the team to get the three points today.”

So now, it’ll be all about using this game as a springboard for Montero, who clearly showed that he’s not going away anytime soon with his play on Wednesday. 

It won’t be easy for Dos Santos, as he’ll have to find a way to use both Montero and Cavallini, be it as a pairing or in a platoon, but that’s a good problem for a coach to have, so he won’t complain. 

With a busy fixture list awaiting them, this could be a blessing in disguise for Vancouver, as they’ll know that no matter what happens to them in terms of fatigue, rotation or injury, they have good options to work with up top. 

“I think Fredy was excellent when he came in today,” Russell Teibert said of his teammate. “He finished his chances. And he was influential to the team in a lot of different ways. He has a strong personality, and we’re happy for him with what he did tonight. We’re happy for the team performance tonight, Fredy was outstanding and we’ll need him going forward.”

Looking Forward:

So now, it’ll be a long road trip for Vancouver, starting this Saturday in Salt Lake, as they travel to Utah to take on Real Salt Lake. 

And no doubt, they’ll miss home, as this was a pretty successful homestand on the whole, as they picked up 6 of 9 points against good opposition. 

It wasn’t the 7/9 that Dos Santos was hoping for, but it was still good nonetheless, as they finished .500 at BC Place for the year. 

Knowing what’s ahead, it’s a good boost for them heading into the darkness, with a tough task awaiting them now in the US. 

“Our ambition before coming in for the three home games was we have to get seven points minimum out of the nine,” Dos Santos said. “We believed we could get nine, but in our head, we must get minimum seven. We got six out of it, so it’s okay, it’s good. But we wanted those seven minimum. Today we deserved to win the game, the game Montreal won, they deserved to win.”

Having had this taste of victory, they’re hungry for more now, and understandably so.

As Dos Santos said after the game, the hunger for victory within him is very strong, so having had this small sampling, he wants to turn it into a full buffet. 

So look for the ‘Caps to continue to grow on Saturday, while also looking for all 3 points, as they face a very unique set of games down below the 49th parallel. 

“I’m a guy that wants to win, there’s nobody in this club that wants to win more than me, nobody,” Dos Santos said. “You could name me every name, there’s not one. Not even the owners want to win more than me.”

“I’m a guy that the game ends, and I’m already thinking Salt Lake, I’m already thinking about how we can get points in the next 9 that are very difficult, let’s remember that in Salt Lake, in LA, and in this pseudo ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ home game against Portland, in Portland, so when you look at all of that, I don’t have time to dwell on losses, I don’t have time to celebrate too much, Salt Lake is next, we want to be ready, and I’m a guy that moves on very quickly from things, I don’t take anything for granted.”

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Real Salt Lake, Saturday, September 19th, 2020, 18:30 PST (Rio Tinto Stadium, Salt Lake City)

All stats taken from American Soccer Analysis

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